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Everyday geographies of racial capitalism: An interview with Gargi Bhattacharyya

Everyday geographies of racial capitalism: An interview with Gargi Bhattacharyya

Continuing our series on the theme of everyday geographies, in this interview Gargi Bhattacharyya reflects on how an understanding of the everyday can shape and inform our awareness of the structures of racial capitalism

1. Gargi, could you start by telling us what you understand by the term 'everyday geographies'?

Hmm. Tricky. Because of course it implies a geography beyond the everyday, perhaps magical or intergalactic. But I think everyday here suggests something embedded in the practices of everyday life. So not the pomposity of formal politics or the abstraction of economy, but something about geographies that underpin and remake what any of us might do on any ordinary day. So everyday geographies are the relations of place and space through which non-elite practices of mundane activity filter, shimmy and run. Everything from taking the bus to mapping the school to food ecologies to going out dancing to making and lying in beds. I am pretty sure that all social activity has a geographical aspect. So everyday life points us to everyday geographies.

2. In your own work, you've previously studied the relationship between austerity, racialisation and everyday life. How do you see this relationship now?

Sadly I think the logic of austerity has become embedded in everyday life. The political project to dismantle structures of (partial) entitlement has been all too effective. So now our everyday lives are punctuated with demands to demonstrate that we are worthy of space, attention, provision, entry. Austerity has instituted a pervasive system of assumed non-status and a form of ‘guilt’ (although guilt is not quite the right word). None of us are automatically deserving, whatever vulnerability or urgency we face. Instead the logic of rationing according to differential entitlements that must be constantly proved translates into almost every social space. There are few if any innocent needs now and even the most enfranchised are integrated into processes of credentialism. Yes, the very rich can buy their way out of this, as they always could. And also there is a melding together of the idea of being without the necessary credentials and representing a greater (perhaps unbearable) risk. In the landscape of ever greater inequality and need caused through the pandemic, this coming together of disentitlement to reducing services, changing and greater needs and dubious assessments of the ‘risks’ posed by some communities confirms we are entering or have entered a post-public services moment.

3. One of the challenges of thinking about everyday geographies is to understand the relationship between lived experiences and broader structures. How do you see this relationship when it comes to 'race' and racialisation?

Everyday geographies offer a route to connect our experience as individuals and communities to larger historical and structural questions. I don’t think the passing interactions and movements of any life can register the interconnectedness and systemic violence of histories and presents of racial capitalism. Historical awareness can fill in some of this, so we start to see the small events of our own lives against a backdrop of large-scale systemic violence and the struggles against such violence. Innovative ways of teaching about supply chains can also illuminate these interconnections - showing how a range of everyday spaces are connected but the connections are obscured. In terms of ‘race’ and racialisation, everyday geographies can help us to understand how ‘race’ is staged in space, through multiple structures of positioning, boundary and exclusion. My hope is such an approach can take us beyond the personal slight narrative of racist incidents to comprehend more fully how the (apparent) atomisation of the enactment of racism is an outcome of racialising techniques that operationalise spatiality. And this is such a clunky and unexplained sentence that I had better stop now.

4. In recent years, since the dumping of the Colston statue into Bristol harbour, we’ve seen an increased interest in exploring how the legacies of empire undergird the everyday geographies of British towns, cities and country houses. How important do you think these legacies are for understanding the politics of race today?

Ha ha - all of this has been both funny and exciting. Of course, earlier generations have been aware of the blood and pain on which British cities are built. No-one could have even a passing understanding of Bristol or Liverpool without registering the legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its violences. However, the upfront contestation of the traces of this legacy, arising from the inspiration of the global RhodesMustFall movement, has really shifted the debate. The impact on our psychic lives to be watched over by those celebrated for their violence towards others has become a speakable concern. That realisation alone is transformative, that we are all haunted by the legacies of racist violence not only as an idea but also because the geography of our everyday lives includes an endless series of reminders, celebrations, confirmations of racialised class power. Getting the statues in the water is a start to seriously thinking together about how to unmake the material and psychic violences of these legacies.

5. Understanding the workings of racialisation today often comes out of everyday spaces, social movements and lived experiences. We think, for example, of how movements like United Families and Friends Campaign have developed and communicated knowledge about racialised violence to broader audiences. How do you see the relationship between these everyday spaces of knowledge production and the more hierarchised spaces of knowledge production represented by the university or school curriculum?

To be clear, it is the democratising influence of street activism that has been changing popular understandings of racial violence and its histories. Formal education has not been leading in this field and, despite the complaints of the press and media, scholars working in this field remain few and often marginalised within their own disciplines. But, of course, I do not believe that academic endeavour is worthless. I think there are unexpected interfeeds between formal scholarship and street knowledges every day - and I think in moments of crisis and possible change, those interfeeds become more pronounced and the often arbitrary distinction between what belongs to the academy and what belongs to the street becomes less certain. I think we have been and are living through this kind of moment, and the rush of movement-focused writing coming out shows this. I think some of the most interesting writing appears when people start to be able to focus very directly on the political challenges before us, but also are able to quiet their own egos and be imaginative and open about the learning they might bring. You can probably tell from this who I like and why - but I also think as a mode of intellectual practice, these ways of working are growing and influencing more people. There does not seem to be much point in guilt-tripping academics, many of whom are clinging to work by their fingertips - and that guilt-trip approach towards anyone is a thin kind of politics, I think. Much better to help everyone to see and find their place in ‘the struggle’ (tired, can’t remember what we are calling it these days). Because we need every one of us. Every single one.

6. In your own research, you've done important work on the idea of racial capitalism. How can we think the concept of everyday geographies in relation to that of racial capitalism?

I think the differentiations and divisions of racial capitalism inhabit both the spatial and the temporal. Racial capitalism points us to the varieties of racialised segregation that continue because such differentiation goes hand-in-hand with different processes of further informalising work and of something like uneven development (although I am a bit unsure whether this term still captures the multi-speed simultaneous over and under-development we see across the world). I am a bit biased obviously, but I do think immersing yourself in the questions of racial capitalism can help reach a better understanding of how capital shapes our everyday lives. So grasping some of the ideas laid open by accounts of racial capitalism - that some people are rendered disposable, that the so-called productive economy also constitutes an edge space/economy/population as its supplement and other, that there is a constant remaking of the fiction of the life of an affluent worker that relies on the economic degradation of some others - all of that can lead to ways of reading everyday geographies in a manner that illuminates the greater whole.

7. Finally, if you had one thing you could say to school teachers about the concept of everyday geographies, what would it be?

Radical education should always offer people ways to see themselves and their lives anew. In some ways, we are experts in our own lives. I understand this view and why the point is made. However, we are also always strangers and travellers in our own lives. What happens to us and around us with little or no note taken is also a set of clues into how the world is made - and of course in how to remake it otherwise.

People have to have some confidence to look to the everyday, including with an analytic and curious eye, if we are to redirect learning towards freedom. I do think we need both forms of knowledge - the ability to register and unpack large structural and historical questions that go beyond what can be made visible in any one life and the immediate and everyday where we can all register the significance of our own experience and histories and those of our communities. Surely learning to be free requires both?

Gargi Bhattacharyya is Professor of Sociology based in the Institute for Connected Communities at the University of East London. Gargi has authored or edited several books, including, in 2015, Crisis, austerity and everyday life: Living in a time of diminishing expectations and, in 2018, Rethinking racial capitalism: Questions of reproduction and survival Gargi was also part of the writing collective to author Empire's Endgame: Racism and the British State in 2021.

This interview is the seventh in our series of articles on the theme of 'everyday geographies'. You can read the first, by Gavin Brown on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, here. The second, by Luke de Noronha on everyday racism and the violence of borders, is here. The third, by Lola Olufemi on 'everyday atrocity' can be read here. The fourth, by Remi Joseph-Salisbury on everyday experiences of racism in English secondary schools is here. The fifth, by Sarah Marie Hall on everyday geographies of austerity can be read here. The sixth, by Caroline Bressey on the everyday spaces of Black history and historical geography, is here.